Wednesday, April 3, 2013

North Korea Raises Tensions, Bars South Korean Workers From Joint Economic Zone

North Korea has ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula another notch, this time barring South Korean workers from accessing an industrial complex shared between the two countries.

Beginning on Wednesday, North Korea announced, the Kaesong industrial complex would no longer be allowing in workers from the South, nor shipments of goods, effectively shutting down the one remaining open entry point between the two countries. Seoul has indicated that its 850 citizens working at the complex’s factories at the time of the announcement will be allowed return, but few have done so yet:

The BBC’s Lucy Williamson, at the border, says many have decided not to return immediately because they fear they will not be allowed back in.

One South Korean worker who returned from the complex said some of his colleagues had been held up because they had no transport.

“Other people couldn’t return because they were supposed to be taken home on trucks scheduled to carry supplies into North Korea, but the trucks couldn’t get into the North,” said the worker.

South Korea has demanded that the access point be reopened immediately, and warned of retaliation in the event that South Koreans are harmed. More than 100 South Korean industries have production facilities at the Kaesong complex, which combined pay over $90 million in North Korean salaries every year.

Opened in 2004 as a gesture of goodwill between the states, the Kaesong complex is one of the few legal methods remaining for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — as the reclusive communist regime is formally known — to acquire hard currency. This isn’t the first time the complex has been closed; it was briefly shutdown in 2009, as a protest over joint United States-South Korea military exercise, but there’s no indication as to how long this closure may last. Meanwhile, the Demilitarized Zone — the 2.5 mile wide stretch of land between the two countries — is still being patrolled so far, ruling out any immediate threat of renewed fighting between the two countries.

The move from North Korea is the latest in a long string of moves that has observers of the situation on edge. While no new military movements have been detected on the part of North Korea, its rhetoric has made predicting the North’s next action difficult. On Tuesday, North Korea announced that it intended to restart its shuttered nuclear facilities, which are capable of producing plutonium and enriched uranium.

General U.S. James Thurman — commander of the U.S. forces in Korea and head of the United Nations Command there — spoke with ABC News about the continuing escalations on Tuesday in a rare interview. Asked whether he felt that North Korea’s rhetoric was just empty threats, Gen. Thurman replied, “No, I don’t think that they are. We’ve got to take every threat seriously.” In response to provocations from the North, the U.S. has positioned two warships capable of downing ballistic missiles off the Korean coast.

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